By Kristen Panthagani, MD, PhD
You may have heard rumblings in the news, but COVID wastewater levels are starting to pick back up again.
And the wastewater levels are going up — we’re not anywhere near the highest peaks we’ve seen in the past, but still something to watch.
COVID hospitalizations are quite low and have been steadily decreasing since last winter, but have started to trend up as well.
What's the deal with this new variant?
We’re also watching BA.2.86 — a new COVID variant with a high number of mutations that may have a unique ability to evade prior immunity. While only a handful of cases have been detected, due to the high number of new mutations, it’s been designated a “variant under monitoring” and is being watched closely.
When the original omicron variant showed up in fall of 2021, its genetic makeup was strikingly different than delta or any previous variant, which ultimately allowed it to rapidly spread around the world.
BA.2.86’s genetic makeup is also strikingly different than the strains currently circulating, which is why it’s getting a lot of attention. But it remains to be seen whether it will become a dominant variant and whether it causes more severe disease.
Thankfully, we’re in a different place than when omicron first came in fall of 2021 — we have more immunity from both vaccination and infections, so it’s far less likely we’ll see severe waves like we saw the first two years of the pandemic.
How should we respond?
Sadly, most of the headlines reporting on BA.2.86 are framed around fear: should we be ‘worried?’ How ‘scared’ should we be?
I would highly recommend not being afraid. That is not particularly helpful. Reasonable precautions are; panic isn’t.
Personally, to avoid COVID precaution-burnout, I have my own set of precautions that I ratchet up when COVID is circulating at higher levels (mostly masking indoors in crowded areas), and then relax a little more when cases go back down. Based on this data, after a nice spring and summer of falling COVID levels, I’m ratcheting back up those precautions, and keeping an eye on BA.2.86.